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Two CD-ROMs take air history to the skies

When I was a kid, I enjoyed reading about airplanes.

There were obviously a lot of youngsters like me, and now a few of them have grown up to write software about their favorite subject.

Medio's Jets is a delightful multimedia CD-ROM reference work chock-full of videos, photos, histories, memoirs and statistics covering more than half a century of jet flight.

Running under Microsoft Windows, Jets needs a computer with an afterburner (a 486SX processor or better) to drive its advanced three-dimensional modeling.

But if you have the horsepower and you're an airplane fanatic, you'll be glad you tried this one.

Jets dispenses with the standard Windows interface and displays a simple, full screen menu that offers a look at the world of jets through the planes themselves, the pilots, a time line or an interactive documentary.

In addition, the program includes the full text of two well-known books on the development of jet aviation, The X-planes by Jay Miller and The Test Pilots by Richard Hallion.

The books have hypertext links to the main program, so it's easy to find information on virtually any plane and most of the people they mention.

The main showcase is a screen that displays text information about each plane on the left, with a window on the right for videos, still photographs and specifications.

Moving among them is as simple as pointing at a screen button with your mouse and clicking.

You'll find more than 140 jet planes, from the Heinkel 178 that ushered in the Jet Age in 1939 to the YF-22A, the prototype of the advanced tactical fighter that will take the U.S. Air Force into the 21st century. The planes are cross-referenced by name, country, year and manufacturer.

There are still photos of every plane, videos of many, and in a nice little piece of high-tech programing, three-dimensional drawings of some craft that allow you to look at them from any angle, turn them around and roll them over.

How well you like the videos will depend on your computer's ability to display them.

On my aging 486DX-33, which has a slow display by today's standards, the quarter-screen video clips were a bit jerky, and the program occasionally had a problem synchronizing video with sound.

But on the whole, the clips were interesting and informative.

When I opted for full-screen video, I got much smoother play, albeit at a coarser resolution.

While it's nowhere near as complete a reference as Jets, Spectrum Holobyte's Wild Blue Yonder CD-ROM has a wonderful sense of style as it chronicles the life and times of 20 famous jet aircraft, divided into four eras.

There's the Jet Age, from World War II through the late '50s; Vietnam, which covers the '60s and '70s; Desert Storm, for planes of the '80s and early '90s, and Tomorrow, which deals with the latest technology.

As you browse through each period, music of the era, famous radio broadcasts and speeches play in the background, giving the program a wonderful feeling of nostalgia.

In fact, the whole thing has the feeling of a television documentary, which is not surprising since the developer, Digital Ranch, has been producing TV programs for years.

There's a video of each jet, as well as screens describing performance, specifications, and notable crashes.

A detailed cockpit view allows you to highlight and zoom in on each gauge and control.

The Windows version (the program is also available for the Macintosh), is based on a combination of Macromedia Director and Apple's Quicktime, which produced some of the smoothest video I've seen on my computer.

Wild Blue Yonder is an unusual and entertaining approach to what is often a dry, technical subject.

I wish the authors had covered a few more aircraft, but a sequel, covering aviation from the Golden Age of aviation _ from its infancy through World War II _ should be on the shelves soon.

For information, contact Spectrum Holobyte, 2490 Mariner Square Loop, Alameda, CA 94501.

Michael J. Himowitz is the computer writer for the Baltimore Sun. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.